Is there a ‘Norwegian sound’?

One of the things this blog has been is an introduction to Norwegian music for the unwary. But is there anything identifiable as Norwegian music? Is there a ‘Norwegian sound’?
(Obviously when it comes to folk music, like Nils Økland and Unni Løvlid, it’s very easy to attach the label ‘Norwegian music’, but folk music is not what I’m writing about here).
Five years ago when asked if there was a definable Norwegian sound I would have said ‘yes’. The true answer is ‘yes and no’. I would say I was right about what I said ‘yes’ about, but probably wrong in general. I hope you follow. Let me pour a large cup of coffee and explain.
No, wait, make that a small cup. I don’t want to be up all night.

It made perfect sense to me that there was a ‘Norwegian sound’ when I was listening to the latest releases from Norway in the middle of the night in my house in London, drowning out the sound of late night visitors (in the winter it was Mediæval Bæbes, in the summer it was rats!). Each album, whether it was Portrait of David, The White Birch, Supersilent‘s sixth album, mid-period Salvatore, or the debut from Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, was like a postcard from Neptune. There was a great sense of… spaciousness… in those albums. A use of silence, of empty spaces, as well as of sound and noise. Like glittering lights in the darkness.
Sometime, probably after I moved to Norway in 2005, I suggested to Jomba from Salvatore that there was a thread running through much of this Norwegian music and he rejected the suggestion. I can understand that. I didn’t even know how to explain it. How could there possibly be a connection between something like Susanna and the Magical Orchestra and something like Salvatore’s Tempo, which was after all recorded in Chicago with John McEntire? But I could hear it.
I think there’s a clue to the explanation in the publicity text for This was the pace of my heartbeat by In The Country. This band is the piano-based jazz act of Morten Qvenild (the Magical Orchestra), and the text states that he ‘draws inspiration from… modern composers such as Messiaen and Feldman for the use of space and sound’. As an admirer of the quiet Feldman myself, this explained much for me. I could hear the Feldman influence, or at least the aesthetic, underlying Qvenild’s arrangements of the Magical Orchestra and the Slow Motion Quintet. Spaciousness, I suppose I’ve been calling it.
I suspect here also is maybe one of the taste-criteria for the record label that released Susanna and the Magical Orchestra and In The Country, Rune Grammofon. This is the label of ex-Fra Lippo Lippi man Rune Kristoffersen. A singer recently told me that Mr Kristoffersen told her he preferred her music when it was just a voice and one instrument. Here is a man who loves spaciousness! And maybe that’s not all Feldman and Messiaen, maybe there’s a bit of Nina Simone’s 1969 album Nina Simone and Piano! in the mix too; after all, Susanna and the Magical Orchestra covered ‘Who am I’ as the first song on their first album. Hey, maybe there’s the spaciousness of Norwegian folk music involved too; Rune Grammofon put out two of Nils Økland’s albums…
When it comes to quiet sounds coming out of the darkness, there are, I believe, musical similarities between this aesthetic and that of Ola Fløttum of Portrait of David and The White Birch. It was therefore no surprise that Fløttum ended up working with Susanna Wallumrød, and that Rune Grammofon ended up releasing a White Birch album.
And the connection with something like Salvatore’s Tempo? Ola Fløttum was Salvatore’s guitarist for their first five albums. The feeling of his guitar-playing in Salvatore is, although less minimal, similar to that of his playing in his other acts. I can’t quite describe it exactly, but I sense it when it’s not there. The feeling is not in Salvatore songs where he obviously does not play the guitar, as in “Get the kids on the street it’s a party”, it is not in the album they made after he left the band, Days of Rage, and it is not in the new band that has emerged now Salvatore have split up, Masselys. All that stuff is different.
So, ultimately, what I identified as a ‘Norwegian sound’ was real, in the sense that the stuff I was hearing in London (and not much Norwegian music gets heard abroad) conformed to a certain taste or aesthetic. Nowadays I’m much more aware of the vast Norwegian music scene and I would not say ‘spaciousness’ is a defining characteristic.
If I had to say what really is special about the Norwegian music scene, it is its tolerance and open-mindedness. Here in Oslo, people listen patiently to manifestations of melancholia, noise, and improvisation, and accept the full spectrum of contemporary music without any narrow-mindedness or hostility. It’s not the sound that’s important, it’s the ears.

Barry Kavanagh writes fiction, and has made music, formerly with Dacianos.

Contact him here.